“The issue is not how to change US policy toward Cuba. The issue is how to change the Cuban regime,” Havana-born US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said not once, not twice, but throughout a recent speech titled “Cuba After Fidel.” The secretary’s disciplined effort to stay “on message” was likely a response to the emerging pressure on Washington to abandon its policy of perpetual hostility and assume a new approach toward Havana–given new political realities in both capitals.

In Washington and Havana, two striking events may have laid the groundwork for real political drama this year: After almost fifty years of supreme rule, a gravely ill Fidel Castro transferred “provisional” power to his brother Raul last July, and after twelve years of being out of power, the Democratic Party resumed control of Congress last November.

In Cuba, eight months of stability and business-as-usual have passed since the announcement of Castro’s illness, reported to be diverticulitis. Castro’s health has improved, and he is slowly re-entering public life, but he appears not to have resumed his previous around-the-clock work schedule, nor his notorious micromanagement of major and minor affairs of state. Yet the regime has not collapsed–as so many officials, analysts and exiles wishfully believed it would–exposing the utter failure of the US policy of regime change. In Washington, Democrats who want a more enlightened posture toward Havana have assumed control of key Congressional committees. Precisely because it is now an open secret that Washington’s half-century don’t talk/don’t trade/don’t travel policy toward Cuba has gone nowhere, the new US Congress has the opportunity to lay the foundation for an overhaul of America’s Cuba policy that a centrist of either party could pursue once in the White House in 2009.

If the Administration were not so embroiled in Iraq, Castro’s dire illness might have provoked a collective cry of “Ding-dong, the witch is dead,” but the unanticipated shifting of the guard in Cuba and subsequent stability there has caught Washington unawares. With the exception of Secretary Gutierrez’s muscular speech, the Administration’s silence on the issue has been deafening, and telling. Caleb McCarry, the Administration’s “transition coordinator” for Cuba, has been keeping a notably low profile. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon has spent his time recently with a number of senior Administration officials and the President himself trying to recover lost ground with the countries in Latin America that really count, such as Brazil and Mexico.

To be sure, a few lonely voices still carry the torch: Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte testified in his last hearing as intelligence czar in January that despite official Cuba’s efforts at an orderly transfer of power, the United States does not want to see a “soft landing” in Cuba. And Cuban-American members of Congress in both parties–but especially House Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario Díaz-Balart–remain unreconstructed but increasingly isolated defenders of overthrowing the Cuban regime. Together with some White House allies, they are willing to risk, and perhaps even welcome, the consequences of a crash landing, on the gamble that the violence and chaos that would ensue would create a post-Castro, post-socialist, post-revolutionary vacuum into which they and their increasingly divided constituents could step.

Beyond these Cuban-American Congressional holdouts, both parties in Washington are experiencing regime-change fatigue. It’s an open secret in Washington, one that failure in Iraq and stability in Cuba have helped spread, that if taken today a secret vote in Congress would reveal an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority in favor of ending economic sanctions against Cuba and allowing all Americans to travel there freely. This is indicated even by votes taken between 1998 and 2001 in the Republican-controlled Congress. Agricultural, travel and energy lobbies; Cuban-American family associations; and cultural, religious and humanitarian groups all currently support an opening with Cuba. Their views are fully representative; some 52 percent of the American public, according to opinion polls, favor lifting the trade embargo against Cuba and pursuing more normal relations.

But despite a broad constituency for a new Cuba policy, despite the emergence from within the Cuban-American community of new voices calling for change (joined by some prominent old ones) and despite the growing importance of non-Cuban Latino voting blocs around the country, the Democratic and Republican political operators will be loath to risk the 6-8 percent margin Cuban-American voters in Florida could deliver to presidential candidates in 2008. After all, precisely because of its internal stability and zealous commitment to its own national security, Cuba is now a strategically insignificant issue for American foreign policy. It is hard to make the case to any national politician that it is worth taking a risk to change Cuba policy when the status quo, however ineffectual, causes little harm and is thus low stakes by comparison with the real biggies–whether immigration, Iraq or Iran.

Nevertheless, the time to make that case is now.

Washington has been poised on earlier occasions to revamp its Cuba policy. During Bill Clinton’s first term, his Administration launched a series of “people to people” initiatives to try and build unofficial bridges to Cuban society. In the aftermath of Cuba’s shoot-down of two Cessnas flown by an exile group, Clinton did sign the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which tightened sanctions and codified the embargo into law, but by 1997 his Administration resumed a policy of at least partial engagement. As Pope John Paul II planned a historic visit to the island, the White House and the State Department identified loopholes in the embargo laws that allowed activities that would provide “support to the Cuban people.” By 1999 the Clinton Administration had moved to expand flights and broaden communications, including mail service to and from the island. By 2000 some 200,000 Americans had made the trip to Cuba–most of them legally.

A number of those initiatives were conceived through unofficial efforts to bring together Republicans and Democrats (including longstanding supporters of the embargo) to craft a new approach. The Council on Foreign Relations, for example, sponsored an independent task force, which I staffed, chaired by two former assistant secretaries of state. Efforts like this helped create a new bipartisan consensus for change in Cuba policy and a willingness to improve official and unofficial ties between the two countries.

These included: “military-to-military confidence-building measures,” like counternarcotics collaboration; lifting the travel ban for all but tourist travel; allowing Americans to send financial assistance to a broad range of individuals and institutions on the island; granting visas for a wide range of Cuban professional travel to the United States; legislative proposals allowing US agricultural sales to the island; permitting US companies whose property had been nationalized in the early years of the revolution to begin the process of negotiating compensation directly with the Cuban government (through debt equity swaps, for example) and allowing “limited American commercial activity on the island” to support these activities.

In the face of forceful lobbying by industries opposed to sanctions and by a variety of anti-embargo advocacy groups, the White House and Congress adopted some measures that created new openings toward the island. In 1994 US and Cuban diplomats began to meet twice a year to discuss immigration issues. After negotiations with the Cuban military in the late 1990s, the US Coast Guard posted a counternarcotics officer at the US interest section in Havana, and the Treasury Department issued a multitude of licenses for research, educational, cultural and humanitarian travel to Cuba. In the spring of 2000, Congress passed an amendment ending the embargo on food and medicine sales.

A slew of hiccups and major crises–most notably, the Elián González affair–and domestic political pressure on both sides of the Straits of Florida exerted their predictable drag on progress. But momentum for change continued on Capitol Hill even after George W. Bush took office. Bipartisan majorities in Congress passed a handful of bills to loosen the embargo, including one lifting the travel ban. These went nowhere, as the White House issued veto threats and the House leadership under Tom DeLay stripped the bills in midnight meetings. As former President Jimmy Carter made his historic trip to Havana in May 2002, Bush hard-liners tried, unsuccessfully, to smear Cuba with the WMD charge, alleging that Cuba was developing bioweapons capacity that could be deployed against the United States or shared with rogue regimes.

But having won Florida by the slimmest of margins in 2000 (if he won it at all), Bush sacrificed a rational Cuba policy on the shrine of electoral politics as his re-election campaign heated up. For example, the White House shut down the immigration talks and moved aggressively to close off other financial flows in and out of Cuba. In mid-2004 the President’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba announced a major rollback on travel to Cuba, including limiting Cuban-Americans to only one visit to their families on the island every three years–with no exceptions. In July 2006, just twenty-one days before Castro’s announcement of the transfer of power in Cuba, the Bush commission called for “bold, decisive action and clarity of message” on US policy. The goal of its new recommendations would be to “undermine the regime’s succession strategy” and “ensure a genuine democratic transition on the island.” “For reasons of national security and effective implementation,” it continued forebodingly, “some recommendations are contained in a separate classified annex.”

Classified or not, US efforts to block a succession of power in Cuba have failed. Not even the regime’s most hardened critics expect Jimmy Carter to be monitoring multiparty elections in some fantasy Havana Spring anytime soon. Changes in Cuba are in the offing, but they won’t look much like earlier transitions in South America, South Africa or Eastern Europe, the most heavily referenced models in the debate over how outsiders can turn Cuba into something it has resisted becoming for almost half a century.

Nor is there any guarantee that lifting the embargo and launching talks with Cuba will cause Cuba to change. Liberals who believe that lifting the embargo will bring democracy to Cuba are just as misguided as their conservative doppelgängers about the capacity for American power to reshape countries–whether halfway around the world or ninety miles off the Florida coast. But precisely because the United States plays such a large role in Cuba’s national psyche, lifting the shadow of the Goliath of the North that hangs over the island’s domestic politics would increase the potential for a more open debate about what kind of country Cubans want and how to get there. Cuba is without a doubt going to change after Fidel, and the United States has a strong national interest in establishing both official and unofficial ties with Cubans on the island who have a stake in that future.

The Bush White House is unlikely to move off its current intransigence. But with the Democrats controlling Congress and Cuban-Americans trending toward favoring a new approach–and while the high season of presidential campaigning is still a year away–now is the time to lay the groundwork for the next administration in 2009. Congress is in a position to launch its own bipartisan policy review and press the issue.

Already, there are bills gaining bipartisan endorsements that would, variously, lift the ban on Cuban-American travel, lift the ban on all American travel, allow Cuba access to private credit for food purchases, neuter the most egregious aspects of the Helms-Burton Act or get rid of the embargo entirely.

A number of committees are also gearing up to hold hearings to expose the corruption and politicization associated with US-Cuba policy. In particular, Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt, who co-chairs with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake the bipartisan Cuba Working Group, will now have the power to exercise long-overdue oversight and launch investigations on a number of fronts.

One order of business under consideration in Congress is to explore why Cuba remains on the State Department list of terrorist nations. The first witness could be Paul Bremer, the former Bush proconsul in Iraq, who could explain to the public why he recommended that Clinton remove Cuba from the State Department list in the late 1990s. Former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez could illuminate the State Department’s rationale for keeping Cuba on the list by explaining why, in the 1980s, he asked Fidel Castro to allow former Basque terrorists to reside in Cuba. Colombia’s former president, Andrés Pastrana, and current president, Álvaro Uribe, could explain why Havana has sponsored talks with Colombia’s terrorist groups as well. And, to illuminate the rationale for America’s historic tolerance of anti-Cuba terrorist activities, Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch should be summoned from his Miami retirement–made possible by an administrative pardon granted by George H.W. Bush–to testify about his alleged collaboration with Luis Posada Carriles in the 1976 terrorist explosion of Cubana Flight 455, which killed all seventy-three passengers on board.

A second order of business would be to investigate the fiscal boondoggle of Radio and TV Martí and other “democracy promotion” programs directed at Cuba. Current Bush Administration officials in charge of these efforts should be asked why the lion’s share of the millions of taxpayer dollars spent to “promote democracy” in Cuba seldom make it to the island but are distributed in no-bid contracts to the Miami-based Cuban exile cottage industry. And they should be asked to account for funds for Radio and TV Martí that have been pilfered in kickback schemes.

The Armed Services Committees could call former generals Barry McCaffrey and Jack Sheehan, who have both visited Cuba and met with Raul Castro, to offer an assessment of how US national security might benefit from establishing channels with the Cuban military. They could testify to the cooperation that the Cuban military has provided on counternarcotics operations–including Cuba’s recent decision to deport a Colombian drug lord back to Bogotá so he could be extradited to Miami–as well as to the support Cuba has provided to operations at Guantánamo Bay in the name of assisting the fight against international terrorism. And the Foreign Affairs Committees could ask former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz to explain why they called for a bipartisan commission to review Cuba policy in the 1990s and whether such an initiative would, in their view, be appropriate today.

Whether or not the 110th Congress makes new law, a year of hearings, testimony and votes will, at a minimum, lay down some markers demonstrating that Congress and the country are poised for an overhaul of Washington’s approach to the island.

George W. Bush will leave office with a legacy of having overseen one of the worst failures ever in American foreign policy. He presided over a near global collapse in American standing and prestige. On his watch, Guantánamo morphed from a local symbol of the US colonial impulse in the hemisphere to a global icon of what’s gone wrong with America. But the President could begin to salvage his and America’s tattered foreign policy legacy with a few strokes of the pen.

He could sign an executive order restoring the ability of Americans, including Cuban-Americans, to travel to Cuba for family, humanitarian and educational purposes. He could issue licenses for American corporations to start negotiating settlements for their nationalized properties. And he could allow Condoleezza Rice to establish a trusted back channel to explore the seriousness of Raul Castro’s recent proposals for bilateral negotiations. He could close down the detention centers in Guantánamo as a first step toward giving the base back to Cuba. None of this would require Bush to sign a new law that hard-liners in his own party would vociferously protest. Apart from the kudos he’d garner from governments and publics in Europe and Latin America soured on American power, at home Republicans would also send a positive signal to non-Cuban Latinos, especially in Florida, who resent the distorted attentions and special benefits historically directed to Cuban-Americans by both parties.

After a half-century of failure and delusion it might just be liberal fantasy that a dose of realpolitik could lead to a new approach to Cuba. Fortunately, polling and voting patterns of the American people, even in Florida, are beginning to show that whoever takes the White House in 2009 will have the political running room to turn Secretary Gutierrez’s speech on its head. Washington’s policy may not bring full-blown capitalism, let alone democracy, to a perennially closed society. But an overhaul of US policy may well relax the siege mentality that keeps Cuba’s own reforms muzzled–and recast US-Cuba relations in a more normal light. That’s why a little reform might be downright revolutionary.